top of page

Visual Literacy 101 - A Background to Mass Culture


Visual Literacy 101 articles serve as one of the academic courses in this precise field. The main aim of this research is to focus attention on the analysis of the topic of “mass culture”, its visual representations and the ways it takes action through imagery and its components. The theoretical framework will be covered from a “counter hegemonic” stance and, essentially, the project involves the attempt to create a diagonal discourse that promotes visual literacy through the idea of art as a pedagogical and revolutionary act, since it moves collective subjectivities.

Visual Literacy 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:

  1. A background to mass culture.

  2. Cultural Industry and what it implies.

  3. Manipulation through images.

  4. How is this manoeuvre orchestrated?

  5. Learning to identify manipulation: conditioning factors.

  6. A critical eye to the situation: Visual Literacy.

A background to mass culture

Since the Frankfurt School, the study of the contents and effects of the so-called mass media has focused its analysis on the evolution of advanced technology societies. That is to say, the symbolic and chewed repetition of contents by the media has given rise to modes of culturalisation that legitimise - or delegitimise - power structures that acquire a deeper extent than they refer to in their representation. This leads, not least, to a decay of the creative renewal of the transformative avant-garde. This is why emerging theories seek to conceptualise or respond to this new phenomenon considered as the "mass culture".

Mass culture, as well as being a concept, constitutes the reality in which we are inevitably immersed on a continuous basis. Throughout the history of thought, it has been characterised by different names (mass society, society of control, disciplinary...) and in turn described through different terminologies (capitalism, consumer economy, technological advances, individualism...), most of them connotative in their formulation and, those that are not, highlighting the obvious under the shield of denotation.

It is around this concept, for instance, that the French philosopher Michel Foucault articulates his "disciplinary society", which he defined as one that "is constructed through a ramified network of devices or apparatuses that produce and record customs, habits and productive practices" (Kancler, 2013: 89). In other words, this disciplinary society would be defined by places of reclusion where mass culture is established as discipline. Which will later mutate, according to Gilles Deleuze, French philosopher, into "societies of control" (Deleuze, 2006). These, would come to be those in which individuals are subdued to the power of the systemic ins and outs, which will end up integrating them into society in exchange for their redirection and manipulation, without the need for localised disciplinary indoctrination as in the disciplinary one. In other words, integration and cohesion is not achieved by means of force as in places of confinement, but through the internalisation of constant practices that are assimilated and end up shaping these individuals.

Figure 1: Michel Foucault lecturing at the French newspaper Libération, 1973.

It is among these intricacies mentioned above, whether governmental or economic, that we find the main producers of visual material destined to be consumed by the masses as a cultural product: the mass media (Domínguez Goya, 2012). Which from now on will be called CMM, among which we must highlight the social networks that operate through the Internet nowadays; those in charge of producing, broadcasting and sharing the entire social flow of information. According to María Bretones, production manager and journalist at Cadena SER, before analysing the effect that CMMs have on viewers, we must distinguish between the various functions that are attributed to them and stick to one of them, as covering them all is both complicated and contradictory (Bretones, 1997). The author argues that there are several lines of interpretation of the functions of CMMs, and that each of them represents a type of society in which the media operate. Therefore, the choice of one option will inevitably also involve a sociological reading of the system that contains us. The first of them defines the CMMs as instruments of power at the service of a manipulative function of society, the second corresponds, on the other hand, to a mobilising function, while the third, for its part, exercises a function of social control, and the fourth, finally, is that which is in charge of socialisation and cultural reproduction (Bretones, 1997). This division can be simplified, however, by taking into account the approaches presented by Umberto Eco, Italian writer and philosopher. Eco distinguishes only two categories, in which he encompasses both the function of the media and the social idiosyncrasy, and which are the following:

  • The apocalyptics, those who believe that the system is governed by manipulative entities that operate through the CMMs and that the population is subjugated to the organs of government.

  • The integrated, who defend the validity of the CMMs and the freedom and critical capacity of the population, although Eco points out here that the latter position "almost always suffers from a certain cultural liberalism" (Eco, 1995: 42).

In a way, the position of the apocalyptics can be understood with the example of the mass propaganda of the Coca-Cola brand, which has been influencing collective minds since its foundation in 1892.

Figure 2: Commercial image of the brand Coca-cola.

Of the options presented, the one to be developed is the one that corresponds to Breton's manipulative and social control function, which, in turn, would be embodied by Eco's apocalyptics. This specification is made insofar as the subject matter to be elaborated in this Visual Literacy 101 series, tries to account for the needs of literacy and the promotion of critical thinking. Therefore, it is necessary to start from the theoretical path that supports and founds these demands that are taken with regard to the educational sphere.

This manipulative function with which the apocalyptics enter into dispute is the one analysed by the Critical Theory of Modernity, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century among the thinkers of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Benjamin, Horkheimer...). According to Adorno and Horkheimer (Kancler, 2013), friends and professional colleagues, the problem of culture and the consequence of its massification occurs due to the fact that culture itself has always been an alternative to reality. Hence, it has been adopted and internalised in a systemic way in order to exercise control from the governmental elites and thus avoid possible subversive behaviour. This is where "the culture industry" is born, which makes social content a "mere reproduction of the economic base" (Kancler, 2013). Adorno and Horkheimer point out:

The atrophy of the imaginative capacity and spontaneity of the media consumer is not to be attributed to any psychological mechanism: the loss of these faculties is to be blamed on the objective character of the products [...] [everything that consumers] have seen before, has taught them what they can presuppose: they therefore react mechanically. The public is imbued with the power of industrial society. (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1981: 398-9)

Bretones adds to the quotation, quite rightly we believe, the following clarification: "the mechanism that makes this type of society possible [Foucault's disciplinary society, with Eco's apocalyptics] consists - with respect to the particular individual - in the implantation of a fixed pattern of behaviour. This is outlined in the forms of personal satisfaction that are achieved by means of the entertainment provided by the CMMs" (Bretones, 1997: 15).

This "culture industry" of which Adorno and Horkheimer speak is nothing more than the exercise of popular culture imposed from above. Thus, the term 'industry' is not applied as such literally, but it is introduced as a reference to the mass (re)production and massification of culture. Since, according to their hypothesis, it “has been unified or integrated, stamping the same mark on everything, constituting cinema, radio and magazines into a system harmonised in itself and all among themselves” (Kancler, 2013: 106). In the same line of thought, Esther Leslie, Professor of Political Aesthetics at Birkbeck, University of London, points out that culture is quantifiable in that it is only given value if it contributes to the economy (Leslie, 2007). This statement was already done by Nicolas Bourriaud, historian and contemporary art critic from France, in his book Relational Aesthetics (2015), when he states that everything that cannot be commercialised is destined for extinction. In relation to such exhibitions, Gerald Raunig, a German-born philosopher and art theorist, states that the German theorists mentioned above "directly negatively assessed the culture industry as a totalising spiral of increasing systematic manipulation with the demand on the masses to adapt more and more to this system" (Raunig, 2007).

Bibliographic references

  • Adorno, Theodor W. and Horkheimer, Max (1981). La industria de la cultura: ilustración como engaño de masas. Mexico: FCE.

  • Bourriaud, Nicolás (2015). Estética relacional. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Adriana Hidalgo Editors. [1st edition: 2004]

  • Bretones, María Trinidad (1997). Funciones y efectos de los medios de comunicación de masas: los modelos de análisis. Barcelona, Spain: University of Barcelona.

  • Deleuze, G. (2006). Conversaciones. Valencia, Spain: Anagrama.

  • Domínguez Goya, Elia (2012). Medios de comunicación masiva. Tlalnepantla, Mexico: Red Tercer Milenio.

  • Eco, Umberto (1995). Apocalípticos e integrados. Barcelona, Spain: Tusquets editors. [1st edition: 1964]

  • Kancler, Tjasa; López, María (directoress) and Ameller, Carles (tutor) (2013). Arte, política y resistencia en la era posmoderna (doctoral thesis). Barcelona, Spain: University of Barcelona.

  • Leslie, Esther (2007). Añadir valor a los contenidos: la valorización de la cultura hoy. Available on:

  • Raunig, Gerald (2007). La industria creativa como engaño de masas. Available on:

Image references


Author Photo

Alicia Macías Recio

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page